David Heinemeier Hansson

May 25, 2023

Manage process before people

If you want to run a company that's light on full-time managers, you have to focus on managing processes before people. The traditional paradigm of a reporting manager that's constantly following up with their reports, conducting daily stand-up meetings, weekly 1-1s, and all other forms of intensive supervision, needs to be (mostly) replaced with an asynchronous, self-managing paradigm instead.

Let's look at five ways that principle works in practice at 37signals.

First, we've replaced the commonly used daily stand-up meetings with a set of automated questions in Basecamp. On Monday mornings, we ask everyone "What are you going to work on this week?", and at the end of every day, we ask "What did you work on today?". These two recurring questions provide the key process for keeping everyone – not just a manager, but peers and colleagues from other teams as well – in the loop on what someone is working on.

Second, we confine the vast majority of product management planning decisions to happen only once every other month. Our Shape Up methodology has us working in 6-week cycles, with 2-week cool-downs. This leaves us with about six cycles per year. Six times where we get to decide "what should we work on next". Six times to review the work that was done in the prior cycle.

Third, we use Hill Charts in Basecamp to give a bird's eye view of "where are we with this project" to anyone who cares to know. This, together with the daily questions, replaces the vast majority of "will this be shipping soon?" questions that a manager might be inclined to ask while the work is happening.

Fourth, we rely on the bounded autonomy of the 6-week cycle to cap the risk that projects drag on forever. Everyone working on a feature knows that they have to find a way to hammer the scope enough to ship within that maximum budget (and often the budget is shorter still!). This deputizes them to make the necessary trade-offs without the need of a manager.

Fifth, we delegate the review of the work of new employees to mentoring peers. This distributes one of the key functions of management, ensuring the quality of the work, amongst the entire team, and keeps it reasonable by only having senior staff serve as mentors for a single mentee. At the same time, we ensure that mentors take this responsibility seriously by putting them on the hook for the quality of the work shipped by the person they're mentoring.

These processes help us dramatically reduce the amount of managerial supervision needed at 37signals. They're the supporting pillars that make the Manager of One ideal actually hold up.

This approach has allowed us to currently just have a single full-time engineering manager across all our programming, operations, and design teams. Every other manager is a moonlighting manager who's also making progress on their own individual work.

The same is true at the executive level. Jason and I are both moonlighting managers as well. Spending the majority of our time pushing the products forward with our direct work on design, programming, copywriting, or whatever. Elaine ensures all other operations are running smoothly as COO.

None of this is to say that managing people is bad. There are plenty of good reasons for why want to check-in with people directly, to help guide them in their career, to provide redirecting feedback if they're off track. 

But it is to say that these functions of management can be divorced from much of the other routine supervision work that fills the weeks of a manager under the traditional paradigm. And if you do, you can get away with far fewer full-time managers, allowing individual contributors to flourish as managers of one, as they pursue mastery and autonomy under a shared purpose.

Get the processes right and the rest will follow.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.